- Jeff Legwold, ESPN Staff Writer
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INDIANAPOLIS –- Three weeks ago, the Denver Broncos were being called unstoppable, undeniable. Now, after 3 hours, 43 minutes' worth of football inside Lucas Oil Stadium, they don’t even lead their own division.
Such is life as they move to Week 8 after an emotionally charged, hype-fueled week. A week that saw the Broncos leave the Manning Goes Back to Indy Bowl with what turned out to be their most disjointed, most mistake-filled performance of the season.
The Broncos turned the ball over three times, including a Peyton Manning fumble that went into the end zone for a safety, were penalized 12 times for 103 hope-crushing yards and simply looked out of sorts in any and all football matters. Add it up and you have the Broncos’ first loss of the season, 39-33 to the Indianapolis Colts -- a loss the Broncos essentially had coming.
"I think we can learn from it," Manning said. "We certainly have to improve from this game. We just weren’t as sharp, execution-wise, as we’d like to be."
The fact they almost played themselves back into position to steal this one, until running back Ronnie Hillman fumbled on the Colts’ 3-yard line with little more than three minutes to play, is a testament to their offensive power and Manning's ability to use every second available. But it also shows they are not immune to the things that befall the less fortunate in the league week in and week out and that simply unloading the buses isn't enough.
Start with Manning. The grand master of preparation was thrown the ultimate of curveballs. A rare return of a future Hall of Famer, still playing at the peak of his powers, to face his former team in a city that still loves him enough to pay tribute to him before the game. And the guy who has made a career of sorting things out, collating and categorizing, was on unfamiliar ground.
The Colts played a short video montage of Manning highlights before the national anthem that featured "Thanks Peyton" at the end of it. Manning acknowledged a frenzied crowd, saying "thank you" and "thank you very much" as he waved, before getting to work.
"I don’t feel it was distraction by any means, I was fully prepared to play," Manning said. "Like I said, I was probably a little more tired coming into the game than I have been coming into some others. I guess that’s probably just natural."
And in the end Manning’s numbers were staggering: 29-of-49 passing for 386 yards and three touchdowns. It was his sixth 300-yard passing game, his fifth three-touchdown game and his first loss of the season. He seemed unsettled at times behind an offensive line that has now been juggled to cover for two injured tackles.
The Colts also played the Broncos' receivers far more aggressively than anyone else has this season and sacked Manning four times after the Broncos’ first six opponents had sacked him a combined five times. The Colts, most notably Robert Mathis, repeatedly disrupted the Broncos’ timing, and Manning never really found the groove he has spent much of the season in.
Manning was asked if he thought his passes were more wobbly than usual Sunday night.
"I throw a lot of wobbly passes," he said. "I throw a lot of wobbly touchdowns, too."
Asked if he had been injured on the second-quarter sack when Mathis had knocked the ball free, Manning deferred again: "It was a good hit, a good hit. A healthy one is how we say it." Manning added that Mathis "is a great player who made a great play."
In the end, Manning called the week "draining" and said he had spoken to Colts owner Jim Irsay late in the week, before the Broncos had arrived in Indianapolis early Saturday evening. Irsay’s comments, made at the league meetings earlier this month and published earlier in the week, that he was "frustrated" the Colts won just one Super Bowl in Manning’s tenure in Indianapolis, brought a uncharacteristically strong response from Broncos coach John Fox on Tuesday, and they had the legs to run through the week as a tough-to-resist storyline.
"I enjoyed coming back here, I appreciated Jim Irsay, he was the one who called for that tribute. I appreciated that very much, I let him know," Manning said. "The game was disappointing for us, something we can learn from. I don’t see that as being a lasting factor."
Manning was quick to say he was relieved earlier this season to have faced his brother, Giants quarterback Eli Manning, for what Peyton said would be the last time in his playing career. And he used the worked "relieved" again Sunday night as he summed it all up.
The Colts have now beaten the Seahawks, the 49ers and the Broncos, and in doing so have flexed some muscle and flashed some moxie. The Broncos were not up to the challenge Sunday night and certainly didn’t play well enough to win this kind of game on the road if they were looking for some kind of measuring stick.
And while Manning won’t be the subject of this type of week, this type of game ever again, the current state of the Broncos' football affairs is worth a look.
Many of the Broncos' penalties, especially the 15-yarders called against defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson, were avoidable and not the sort of thing a Super Bowl hopeful does with any frequency, especially when trying to construct a comeback. Turnovers in the kicking game and at running back continue to be two red flags.
And the injuries are starting to pile up, especially on the offensive line, and Champ Bailey’s foot is a concern again as well.
"We could have had a better effort, that’s part of it, get back in the lab and start working," linebacker Von Miller said.
"Most definitely we wanted to get this for Peyton. It’s different when you’re doing stuff for coaches. Peyton’s a great teammate for all of us. It hurts, I really wanted to go out there and get one for him."
They all did. They just didn't do enough to get it done.
5dEric D. Williams